New York Times!

Y’all, The Boat People was in THE NEW YORK TIMES!

 “Just send me a couple of copies,” I said to my publicist. She sent 20.

“Just send me a couple of copies,” I said to my publicist. She sent 20.

THE NEW YORK TIMES! The Boat People was featured in the December 9th issue’s “new in paperback” section alongside Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey and a non-fiction about the roots of the American asylum system. Appropriate, n’est-ce pas?

The American paperback hit shelves this month and along with it came a small resurgence in publicity stateside, including the NYT mention, a lovely review in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and some blog love too.

And late last month, LitHub asked me to curate a list of “lesser known Canadian books.” So I wrote a short essay and threw together a book list, all the while cringing at the thought of the title LESSER KNOWN CANADIAN BOOKS AS CHOSEN BY TOTALLY UNKNOWN CANADIAN. But when the piece came out I laughed out loud (and totally approved) of the title they chose. The Great White North Isn’t So White.

And speaking of lists, its end-of-the-year round up season and The Boat People was one of several books on the CBC’s Best Canadian Fiction of 2018 list, 49th Shelf’s best fiction of the year, and the best books of the year list on Pickle Me This.

Earning an income

Back in April I did a Q&A with a group of highschool students. How much do you make from a book, they asked. Is being a novelist a realistic career choice? I think the teachers were slightly mortified but I found the candid questions refreshing. Frankly, these teenagers were a hell of a lot more pragmatic than most adults.

The answers, by the way, are: not much and no, not really. As I told the teenagers, most writers have day jobs. Because even if you hit a jackpot like the Giller, you have to make that windfall last until you sell the next book. And books take years to write (I started The Boat People in 2013, 4.5 years before it came out). Advances, even when they are generous, don't amount to a whole lot when spread out over the gestation and infancy of a book.

Those of us who are full time writers usually have a bunch of side hustles and income streams. This list is not exhaustive. It is limited to my own experience and what others have told me.

BOOK SALES

If you’re lucky, your publishing house will give you an advance. A small house might give you zero dollars or a thousand or $500. Someone recently told me that a generous advance for a debut novelist is $20K. I don’t know if this is true. In any case, these numbers assume you make a Canadian sale. There is more to be made on an American sale and then of course there are other international English-language sales, plus translations.

I think everyone should at least try to get a good agent because agents know everything and have an incentive to get you the best possible deal.

An advance is an advance against earnings. Meaning you have to sell enough books to earn out your advance before you see any royalties. Royalties are usually very detailed with a whole mess of percentages. I like to think of it as 10% of the cover price but that’s not really true. There are different percentages for all kinds of things. E-book percentages for example can be renegotiated after two years (because e-book sales are ever changing!) This is also why agents are helpful. They can spot contractual bullshit at a 100 paces.

FILM/ TV RIGHTS

People seem to think every book is being made into a movie (or at least that my book will be) to which I say: don’t hold your breath.

Writers get paid when a book gets optioned (which can happen several times over without a movie getting made) and then if the movie gets made, they get paid again for the rights and possibly also if they have some kind of role in the production. You really need an agent to get any of this done and I know nothing except that even getting an option seems pretty good because it’s cash money. And that is what we are all here for. CASH. MONEY. MAKE IT RAIN.

SPEAKING ENGAGEMENTS

Some writers are on the speaker’s circuit, meaning they give key note addresses and speeches at conferences and fundraisers and large public events. The Massey Lectures are one example. But there are lots of other opportunities too (for example, law firm lunch and learns). I was asked to give a speech at Pier 21 in the spring as part of their author series and that’s when I signed up with a speaking agent. Since then my agent has found me other opportunities and looking forward to 2019, I can see that it’s going to be a key part of my income. The great thing about these events is there’s almost always a book sale table. Which means….royalties + speaker’s fee. These events are totally exhausting and hard work but they are also a great way to pay the bills.

MANUSCRIPT EVALUATIONS

Providing feedback on someone’s manuscript or short story takes time and intense creative energy but it can also be a good income stream. I personally get a lot of joy out of helping other authors improve their manuscripts. (Get in touch if you’d like a quote. I’m restarting my MS evaluation service in the new year.)

EVENTS

Festivals, panels, public readings, etc. The going rate ranges between $125-$300/hour. Sometimes non-writers get huge eyes when they hear this number but let’s get real: these events aren’t lucrative. There’s usually so much travel involved that it works out to pennies on the hour. You do events to sell books, get your name out, and meet readers and other writers. The pay cheque is appreciated and necessary, don’t get me wrong, but events aren’t money spinners.

WORKSHOPS

If it’s part of a festival you’ll probably get the per hour rate (say $200) but if you’re teaching a workshop in some other context (say at home for your Writer’s Guild) you can set whatever rate you like. You’re the boss. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m planning to teach a workshop in the new year. Stay turned.

TEACHING

Some writers work as professors or instructors in MFA programs. Some teach out of their homes or lead one-off classes and workshops. Some act as mentors to emerging authors. Teaching can be a key part of an author’s income but again, income varies greatly depending on whether you are a tenured professor or sessional slave labour.

JURY DUTY

Grants and prizes all need juries. In my experience the going rate varies a lot but no matter what, the hourly rate is never going to be great. Some proportion of jury duty is just unpaid labour. You do it for good karma or to help get your name/ the name of your book out into the world. Or you do it because you admire the prize and are honoured to be involved. Or you do it because you respect the other jurors and think you’ll enjoy working with them. Weigh the pros and cons and factor all of it against the time commitment and what else you could be doing in that time (ie. writing).

GRANTS & PRIZES

Grants count as taxable income but most prizes are tax-free! Shortlisted authors sometimes get a cheque too. In both cases it’s a bit like the lottery and while I think everyone should apply to grants, it’s a mistake to count on the money.

LIBRARY LOANS

Libraries that carry your book are paying a different price to the publishing house than you or I pay at the book shop. So you’re making money on those royalties. But every time someone takes out the book, you could potentially be getting a bit of money for each of those loans too. You have to sign up here.

BOOK CLUBS & CLASS VISITS

Some schools are already set up with a budget for visiting authors and all you have to do is invoice. And some book clubs volunteer a payment. But often this is a case of “we have no money but will you come see us anyway?” You can choose to do this work for free or you can ask to be paid. And if the latter, you can set whatever rate you like. For an hour with a class $200-$250 is what you could expect.

Caveat: If you’re being invited to any event that charges people to attend then you should absolutely be paid.

ARTICLES/ ESSAYS/ WEB CONTENT/ STORIES

Rates vary so, so, so widely. And often I end up writing content for free (if the request comes through my publicist/ I think it’s worth the publicity). Over time, I’ve been doing fewer of these freebies though. It’s demoralizing and unfair to be a professional writer who writes for free.

Writing articles can be a decent side hustle and some authors turn their essays into collections (smart). Some writers have regular columns in print or online publications. Some have an editorial or managerial role. I have no idea what this kind of work pays but it seems like it could be rewarding and fun.

And then there are short stories which we write and try to sell to magazines. It’s never a ton of money. I think the most I ever got for a short story was $350 (for a story that I spent years working on and a whole lot of money submitting to various places that rejected me). Note that you can make more if a story wins a contest but contests usually cost $$$ to enter. (If you’re in NL, the Arts & Letters is free to enter and lucrative if you win)

RESIDENCIES

Writer-in-residence programs are usually run out of libraries or schools. You commit to a length of time (say a semester) and in that time you read and comment on the work of emerging authors in the community, meet them individually, maybe give a public talk and teach a couple of workshops and in exchange you get a pay cheque. The idea that is you also have time to work on your own project. But you usually have to pay for your own flight and accommodations so unless the residency is in the place where you already live, it’s worth scrutinizing the economics.

SUMMATION

This might seem like a long list but the fact is that most of these items don’t come with a big pay cheque. It’s almost always a case of cobbling things together and crossing your fingers for a windfall (grant/ prize). Some months are feast and others are famine and literally I never know from one year to the next what my total income will be. It really helps to have a sponsor or a trust fund or a life partner with a secure 9-5 or be comfortable living like an undergraduate (this is my theory for why all Canadian writers own the same rug). It also helps to be frugal and diligent about money.

In addition, we all perform a metric ton of unpaid labour. Blurbs, reference letters, interviews, book shop readings, travel, writing articles that never see the light of day, having your brain picked over coffee…. And that’s on top of the administrivia that comes with running your own business: emails, chasing down cheques, tracking finances, publicity and self promotion, writing grant applications and job proposals, submitting stories to publications and contests, waiting on hold with CRA….

So it also helps to be comfortable with the word no. You have to say no a lot. Because in addition to making enough money, you have to also set aside time to do the thing we are really here to do: WRITE BOOKS. Oh yeah…that.

Gripes

Rebecca wrote this dark comedy of a blog post recently and I was all “SING IT, SISTER.” It’s about the indignities she has endured in her years as a writer. Rebecca has been writing and publishing longer than I have so she’s had to grin and bear more, but I share indignity #4 on her list.

Anyway, like Rebecca, I’ve mostly had wonderful experiences and I know I’m incredibly lucky to even be a writer and have work published but there are also moments that make me want to shake my fist. Please enjoy some dark humour…

In March I adjudicated a short story competition. Reading stories and choosing the winner was a pleasure but then the organization tried to scam me out of my payment with the old “the cheque is in the mail” routine. It was not in the mail. Not even after I sent several emails. And then there was radio silence and I started to get seriously concerned. Fortunately, the organization was the PEI Writers’ Guild and I have an acquaintance from PEI. She intervened and then the cheque really was in the mail.

In April I took part in the book club at my local museum (The Rooms in St. John’s). People paid $15 each to attend. The evening was a delight. We had a really big and wonderful audience and the interviewer was fantastic. But the payment took months and several emails on my part. If I don’t pay the plumber within 30 days he charges interest. But some organizations seem to think writers don’t deserve to get paid on time. Anyway, good thing we have Status of the Artist legislation, huh?

Speaking of the Status of the Artist blah-blah-blah, remember this?

An organization asked me to give a key note speech at their event. Key note speeches take time, effort, and stress. I wrote back a very polite email (which I put a lot of thought into) where I laid out why I couldn’t work for free, how to get in touch with my agent and negotiate a rate, and then listed a couple of other much cheaper options for how I could help them out. Think I got the courtesy of a reply? Nope.

A group of writers asked me to teach them a private workshop for free. LOL.

FOR REAL THOUGH…WHY THE HELL DO PEOPLE THINK I WANT TO WORK FOR FREE? FOR THE RECORD: I DO NOT.

Once I was on a panel where all the authors were asked to prepare a 10 minute reading. One of the authors yammered on for about 25 minutes while the other author and I stared dolefully at each other. Finally the moderator cut him off (he hadn’t even gotten to his reading yet!). Then we did a Q&A and he kept trying to hog all the air time. Who am I kidding? Of course this happened more than once. And to paraphrase Rebecca, it’s not all male authors of a certain age but it is ALWAYS male authors of a certain age.

Writers are forever being picked up at airports and driven places by strangers. Sometimes it’s innocuous and you make pleasant small talk. Just as often it’s a bloody nightmare. Once, I got into a fight with a driver about “Hilary’s emails.” I hope he wasn’t expecting a tip. In New York, a driver with a Spanish accent complained about “Muslim foreigners.” He didn’t get a tip either. Once, soon after the miscarriage of justice that was the Coulton Bushie trial, a driver talked about why “Indian boys” deserve to get shot.

Hello older man I’ve just met. Please remove your hand from my upper back. Please stop taking every opportunity to randomly touch me as we stand at this registration table making awkward small talk while we wait for our name tags. I’m going to stand waaaaaay over here now and go out of my way to avoid you for the rest of this literary festival.

At a big event, in a room of 500 people where everyone had a copy of my book but most of them hadn’t read it yet, a woman stood to ask a question and shamelessly gave away the ending while the rest of the audience shouted her down. (Not the first time it’s happened either.)

Nasty emails from readers. Yes, really.

I agreed to take part in an event with another author. After the arrangements were made and plane tickets were bought, I found out it was an unmoderated conversation. For an hour. With an author I had previously met once for five minutes in an elevator. I happen to like this author very much and I think the feeling is mutual but it’s really unfair to make authors act as their own moderators. Promoting your own work and moderating a conversation are two very different skills and it’s impossible to move back and forth seamlessly. Fortunately, there were only 7 people in the audience.

Once after I’d given a 45 minute speech that I’d spent a very long time researching and preparing, a man in the audience said: “I haven’t read your book but let me tell you why everything you’ve just said is problematic.” LOL. When it was my turn to reply, I very politely eviscerated him to audience applause. Come at me, bro. But you best not miss.

The Port Authority!

This has been a MASSIVE year for my writing group, The Port Authority. In the past 12 months four of us have published new novels. FOUR. Jamie Fitzpatrick’s The End of Music just got a much-deserved and wonderful review in Malahat and our books are duking it out next February during NL Reads. Melissa Barbeau’s The Luminous Sea has been getting all kinds of lovely buzz and landing on nightstands across the country. Susan Sinnott’s bestselling novel, Catching the Light is a finalist for the White Pine Award. And long before all of this, we all, along with several other authors, including the talented Carrie Ivardi, published a short story collection called Racket.

Susan, Carrie, Jamie, Melissa, and I will be reading from our work at Broken Books on Duckworth Street. If you’re in St. John’s on Tuesday, December 4th at 7:30pm, come by. It’s free and open to the public and we’d love to see you there.

Broken Books Promo.jpg

Aspen Words Literary Prize

 Aspen Words Literary Prize long-list (image via @aspenwords on Instagram)

Aspen Words Literary Prize long-list (image via @aspenwords on Instagram)

THE BOAT PEOPLE has been long-listed for the Aspen Words Literary Prize! Awarded annually, it’s given to “an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture). This is a pretty new prize, only in its second year. The inaugural winner was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (a book I read back in January and adored).

I was on a plane to Toronto last Monday afternoon, blissfully unaware that the team at Doubleday US had even submitted my book for consideration, when the long-list was announced. I landed to the happy email from my publicist and then I looked up the competition and was even happier. Because look at those books! In particular, Brother by David Chariandy, one of my favourite reads from last year.

The short-list will be announced in February. Until then, fingers crossed!



September Appearances

Fall is here and with it the busiest season for authors with new books! I'll be zipping around the country appearing at festivals and book shops and events from now until the end of November. I'm trying very hard to keep my events page up-to-date so you can keep up with me there.

This month I'll be in Guelph for the festival at Eden Mills, doing a reading on Sunday, September 9th and sharing the stage with Kim Thuy and Dr. Brian Goldman. We'll be talking about empathy, among other things. A couple of weekends later I'll be at Word on the Street in Toronto doing two events: an unmoderated one hour conversation with Catherine Hernandez (author of Scarborough) on Saturday, September 22nd and a half hour reading and Q&A on Sunday, September 23rd. And at the very end of the month you can catch be at the Cabot Trail Writers Festival in Nova Scotia. I'll be on stage three or four times that weekend and will also be running a writing workshop. Full details for September are here. Please come out if you can. I love meeting readers.

 

Signal boost

Gentle reader, do you love a book and/or its author? Do you want to support said book/ author? There are so many ways! Author Amy Stuart blogged about this very thing on her own website and it inspired me to write a post script.

1. Obviously if you can afford it, buy copies for all your friends and family. Give the book out to random strangers at Christmas time while shouting "ho, ho, ho" in a jolly voice.

2. Borrow the book from your library. Writers get royalties for every copy the library buys. And there's also a system that tracks how often a book is borrowed and we get a bit of money for each of those loans as well.

3. If a book isn't available, ask your librarian to order it in. This year, I've taken to ordering books that have flown under the radar. Small press authors, writers who are trans, brown, black, queer, graphic novelists...these are the authors whose books are less likely to get attention. (Don't be fooled by the few of us who you see in the spotlight. We are the minority of the minority.)

4. And speaking of libraries! If you've bought a book and loved it but aren't a hoarder like me, donate it to your local library. You might even get a tax receipt.

5. As Amy said, good reviews on Amazon, Chapters, Barnes and Nobel, and GoodReads are the gifts that keep on giving.

6. Do you have teacher/ professor friends? Maybe just slip a copy of the book into their hands and whisper: curriculum. You'll be doing the author and the students a favour.

7. Come to our events. We love meeting readers.

8. If you really love a book, don't be shy about telling the author.

And now a story. One evening in the spring, I was waiting to deplane in the St. John's airport, feeling emotionally and physically wrung out from book promotion and travel, missing home and my mathemagician something fierce, cross-eyed from a headache, and desperate for the loo. And I was feeling sorry for myself. It's only May, I thought. How am I ever going to keep up this pace until Christmas? Wah, wah, wah. A tiny violin played a sad song for me. And then a total stranger with the face of an angel stood up from her seat, looked me right in the eyes, and said (apropos of nothing): "I loved your book, by the way." In that moment it felt like the kindest words ever spoken. Before I became a writer, I was meek about reaching out to authors. I only did it twice. Don't be shy. You have no idea how much it means, those four magical words: "I loved your book."

The Agenda

 In which I think about jumping for joy on the arm chair but decide on balance it's probably a career limiting move.

In which I think about jumping for joy on the arm chair but decide on balance it's probably a career limiting move.

The truth is that I'm mildly terrified of listening/ watching/ reading my interviews. So it took me a few days to get up the courage to watch this conversation that aired on TVO's The Agenda a couple of Thursdays ago. But there was nothing to fear. Nam Kiwanuka is a wonderful interviewer who asks astute questions and listens patiently while first-time authors (with stars in their eyes ...omg THE AGENDA!...total nerd girl dream come true!) give long and meandering answers.

You can watch the whole interview (26 minutes) here. Despite my complete inability to give brief answers, Nam kept us on track and we managed to cover a lot of ground. We talked about the three points of view, research, the political situation in Sri Lanka that led to war, and the novels I turned to for guidance. But we also went over some difficult and personal emotional terrain and you know... that's not a place I would have willingly gone to with just any interviewer. But I knew Nam's work and I trusted her completely and that is when you get an ace interview.

 Photos screen grabbed from TVO's website.

Photos screen grabbed from TVO's website.

Reflecting on our conversation and her own experiences, Nam later wrote an opinion piece that is well worth a read. Stand out lines: What they’re running from is worse than what they’re running to....If you’ve never been in that situation — if you’re never experienced civil war, unrest, or persecution — you’re lucky." These truths bear repeating. They bear screaming from roof tops. Children and adults should be made to write these lines on endless chalkboards because for some reason too many people haven't grasped these lessons yet.

Nothing sets my teeth on edge like hysterical headlines and pundits who wring their hands about the so-called "migrant crisis." People coming here for safety? That is not a crisis. Watching your neighbour get doused in petrol and set on fire. THAT is a crisis.

If you think people fleeing rape and torture and death to come to the peaceful country where you are lucky to live is a crisis, you are a moron.

I've been talking a lot about empathy this year but the real problem is a lack of imagination. Too many people are unwilling to ask themselves the question: what if it was me? What if I was born into a country at war? What if I lived in daily fear for my life? What if I fled hell only to arrive in a country whose leaders decided that my life wasn't worth a few votes? It's laziness that prevents people from putting themselves in another person's shoes. Do yourself a favour. Don't be a lazy git.

Winners

Congratulations: Shashi, Greg, Alicia, Liz, Philip, Jason, Aviva, Rowan, Sofia, Jess, Iryn, and Carly! Look at these stars, the long listed authors whose stories will appear in the Journey Prize 30.

JP Long List.jpg

Congratulations to: The Dalhousie Review, Pulp Literature (x2), The New Quarterly (x2), Event, The Malahat Review, Prism International, PrairieFire, This Magazine (x2), and the CVC Anthology Series (x2).

JP Names.jpg

Zoey, Kerry, and I judged the stories blind meaning it was only after the decisions were made that we got to see the authors' names and the publications that had put their stories forward. After all our debates and nit picking over theme and character and form, all these particulars that were, at the time, divorced from our knowledge of the writers themselves, the big reveal was a joyous experience. There were many exclamations, especially when we learned that one writer and one publication had made the list twice (Greg if you are reading this, we all agreed that Pulp should give you a free subscription for life).

I've adjudicated a few short story competitions now but I've never been prouder to see a list of winners. Yeah. Winners. Listen. It was A FEAT for these writers to get on the long list. First, they had to write a story (difficult enough!). Then they had to find the story a home (you can imagine all the rejection along the way). Then the publications had to decide that out of all the stories published that year, their particular story was the one to put forward. And then the story came to us, the jury.

Zoey, Kerry, and I are tough customers and there were many wonderful stories that did not make the cut (some that I still recall with great admiration). So yes, once again, congrats to the winners:

Alicia, Aviva, Carly, Greg, Iryn, Jason, Jess, Liz, Philip, Rowan, Sashi, and Sofia.

Jury duty

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The Journey Prize - Canada's biggest and most lucrative annual short story award - turns 30 this year and I was fortunate enough to be on the jury along with authors (and all around wonderful human beings) Kerry Clare and Zoey Leigh Peterson. The long-listed authors and their stories will be announced on Tuesday, August 7th. Watch this space.

How the award works

In January/ February, magazines and publications choose up to three of the best stories by emerging authors that they published in the previous year. The stories are sent to McClelland & Stewart who administer the award (not to be confused with the Writer's Trust of Canada who give the award out and are responsible for the hoopla surrounding the ceremony). It's actually my Canadian editor Anita Chong and assistant editor Joe Lee who do much of the thankless, painstaking, administrative work. They are stars.

M&S hires the jury and we all read every single one of the stories. And then we the jury discuss and debate and re-read and re-consider and eventually we narrow it down to the long-list, all of which are published in the Journey Prize anthology. I'm so pleased for these authors because I know what it means to make the anthology. And it's a gold star for the publications that nominated them too. Let's take a moment to tip our hats to those magazines and literary journals - staffed mostly by volunteers working long hours on shoestring budgets. They are the corner stone of Canadian literature, the first rung on the ladder and their existence makes so many of our careers possible.

This year's jury

I lucked out with my fellow jurors. Kerry Clare (who has written about her Journey Prize experience here) and Zoey Leigh Peterson are careful readers and came to the job with a spirit of openness that made healthy and respectful discussion and debate possible. We listened to each other. We kept open minds. None of us assumed we knew better. We gave the job the respect and attention it deserved and were willing to re-read. Over and over and over. The things Kerry and Zoey taught me about reading, are lessons I carry with me today. They have made me a more thoughtful reader and probably a better writer. And I'm proud of the anthology we curated. Journey Prize 30. It's a stunner.

Book Box Love

Subscription boxes are so trendy right now and with good reason. Who doesn't want to receive a themed box of surprise goodies in the mail every month? And now a new Canadian service, called Book Box Love, is offering a monthly subscription service for book worms.

 Book Box Love's July box. Photo credit:  @pretty_little_library

Book Box Love's July box. Photo credit: @pretty_little_library

I was thrilled when they selected The Boat People for their inaugural box which went out to readers earlier this month along with: a cinnamon candle, a gorgeous passport case handmade by Knotted Nest (with fabric chosen especially to match the cover...how nice is that?!), and decadent coconut bites by  Golden Ticket Candy. Also: a handwritten postcard from yours truly. Because packages are incomplete without handwritten notes.

I got a kick out the curation for July's box. Cinnamon and coconut...they couldn't have paired the book with better items. Fun fact: Sri Lanka is the only country where cinnamon grows natively. That's what my great uncle, a world cinnamon expert, says anyway. (In fact we call him Cinnamon Uncle....mostly because when you are Lankan you have approximately 357 uncles and aunts and it's impossible to learn all their names) Anyway, Wikipedia has other opinions about cinnamon's ancestry which you may choose to believe or ignore (I joke. I joke. Don't @ me Indians, Bengalis, and Burmese!)

 Pictured: postcard with my chicken scratch. Photo credit:  @pretty_little_library

Pictured: postcard with my chicken scratch. Photo credit: @pretty_little_library

And then of course coconuts are used for everything in Sri Lanka. Coconut oil - good for hair, skin, cooking, and medicine. Coconut water - good for cooling the body and upset stomachs. I've got serving spoons made from coconuts. Coconut. It's the uber fruit. 

Everything in the box is made in Canada by small artists or artisans. The July box with The Boat People went out to subscribers earlier this month but there are still a few left if you want in on the fun. Sales are now open for the August box and you can learn more and subscribe on their website. And finally, I did an interview with Book Box Love, which you can read here on their website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mutton Curry

 Maisonneuve, Summer 2018 issue

Maisonneuve, Summer 2018 issue

 In the shadow of Signal Hill

In the shadow of Signal Hill

I have a very old story newly out in the summer issue of Maisonneuve Magazine, which is on stands now. Mutton Curry was written in the winter of 2011 when I was taking an evening class with Jessica Grant. That class was where I learned to write well and Mutton Curry was the first truly decent short story I ever wrote. It won the Arts & Letters Award the following year and later got an honourable mention in a Glimmer Train contest. Still, it took a very long time to find the story a home (7 years!) but here it is. And holy cats! Check out the photo! Photographer Jennie Williams shot it back in April (when it was still cold here; yes that is a winter coat) but I didn't expect it to be so...prominent!

Recently a fellow writer sent me Submittable's e-newsletter. At the very bottom, after all the links to articles and notices, there were two lists. The first was the names of writers who had had the most number of rejections that month. The second was the list of authors whose pieces had been accepted that month. Of the five successful authors, four were also on the "most rejected" list. That is not a coincidence.

I know I always harp on about this but I'm going to sing my song again: submit your work! Submit, submit, submit. Rejection is a (frequent) pit stop on the road to acceptance. But it's just that - a pit stop. It is not the final destination.

ps. Mutton Curry is linked to A Drawer Full of Guggums (published in Racket) and to another story I have coming out later this year. If you read Mutton Curry and are wondering what the secret ingredient is in Amma's curry, stay tuned. All will be revealed!

What to do

Fellow Canadians, what are we to do? We haven't got congresspeople to pester or votes to cast south of the border. But we have votes and representatives here. And we have a battle to fight: the Safe Third Country agreement. "Under the Safe Third Country Agreement... Canada and the US each declare the other country safe for refugees and close the door on most refugee claimants at the US-Canada border." (source)  Those children you've been seeing on the news? Because of this agreement they are not allowed refuge in Canada.

 This two-year-old could be your child.  Photo by John Moore

This two-year-old could be your child. Photo by John Moore

Write to your Member of Parliament (contact info here) and copy the Prime Minister's office (justin.trudeau@parl.gc.ca). Demand that the Safe Third Country Agreement be scrapped. Be brief. Be polite. Be firm. Dear MP and Prime Minister Trudeau: We have to scrap the Safe Third Country Agreement. America has proven itself an unsafe place for people in need and this agreement we have with them is no longer in the best interests of us or asylum-seekers. Yours in sunny ways, A voter.

America is kidnapping children. Not just any children. Refugee children. The world's most vulnerable children. It is a human rights violation. It is unspeakably cruel. It is a sin in the eyes of any God worth worshipping.

These are not the actions of a safe country. And if we were serious about those apologies we made for the atrocities of our past (the MS St. Louis, the Komagata Maru, residential schools), if they weren't just empty words, then we have to stop pretending otherwise and we must, absolutely must, let refugees who come through the US in.

In grade school we studied WWII. Learning about the genocide and the concentration camps and the way a whole group of people were dehumanized and carted off like cattle, many of us said, very earnestly: "I'd never let that happen." Well now we are adults and guess what? It is happening. We are watching it happen.

You don't need a crystal ball to predict what comes next. Once the borders are well and truly closed and no one new is trying to get into the US, they will turn their attention inward. A Muslim-American internment is on the horizon. America is not a safe country. It is Germany circa 1938. And if you can't see that link then you are being willfully blind and have lost your moral compass (don't @ me. I don't care).

The Canadian Council for Refugees has more information and resources about the Safe Third Country Agreement. Amnesty International Canada has a petition against the agreement that you can sign here. Alex Neve, the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada has written a heartfelt and cogent argument against the Safe Third Country Agreement and you can read his comments here. The biting and very sensible Drew Brown has more to say on this subject in this article on Vice.

We can't control what happens in another country. But we can make change here. We can keep Canada a safe country. I am not a parent. But I am heartbroken for all these parents and children. These are people in desperate need. These are people just like us.

 

 

The 99 per cent

Or: why talent is overrated. 

Sometimes we talk about stories like this: the story is an entity with its own consciousness. The story arrives, via a muse. The story reveals itself as it is being written. Writers are mere scribes.

This airy-fairy, woo-woo, magical thinking is a whole lot of nonsense. Writing isn't magic. It's good old-fashioned hard work. It is sitting your butt in the chair every single day and forcing yourself to do the work. Because trust me about this, if you don’t keep the pump primed, it will not yield a drop.

Sure, there are moments that feel sublime but the movie montage of how a book is made would look really mundane. Writing is a nose stuck in a refugee law text book. It is hours trawling the internet for photos of jail cells and then more hours trying to find the correct combination of words to evoke said jail cells. It is reading over something you thought was insightful and poetic the day before only to discover it has morphed into toxic waste. It is revising a chapter for the tenth time. It is writing the same sentence five different ways and then reading each option out loud. It is chucking months of work and going back to square one. It is persistence and effort with a healthy dose of self-hatred. And most of the time it is also working despite deep uncertainty. Not knowing if the story is any good. Or else, knowing it is not good but hoping it might eventually get better.

Where the work  happens

Sometimes, because we are often asked and it is difficult to properly describe how stories are invented, we writers revert to supernatural explanations. Harry Potter famously appeared to JK Rowling in a train car. I believe this anecdote because that is how many of my characters have rocked up too. I’ll be tossing and turning with insomnia when a little girl appears out of thin air.

This is called inspiration (1%). Then comes the perspiration (99%). Now I have to make decisions. What’s this little girl’s name, age, and future vocation? Is she introverted or extroverted, a pessimist or optimist? Decisions mean constraints and constraints are important because good writing is precise. You can’t be specific when you are writing about a character if you haven’t nailed down the details. But then the real questions are: What does this character want more than anything? Who far will she go to get it? And for that, I free write pages and pages and pages, most of which will never leave my notebook. From all this random riffing emerges a picture of who the character is and from there the plot evolves.

It does everyone a disservice to suggest there’s a fairy who selectively whispers sweet nothings into the ears of a chosen few. Talent is real and it sure is helpful but it’s highly overrated and not the key ingredient. If you want to be a writer, write. Do the work. I repeat: talent is not necessary. Work is necessary. That’s the 99%.

Riddle Fence 29

Riddle Fence 29

The newest issue of Riddle Fence is out and I've got a story inside. It's called When the end came and it's probably the most Townie piece I've ever written. I took as many quirky things as I could find in St. John's and shoved them into a story that is ostensibly about quantum computers but is really about anxiety. (Or is about cheeseburgers? YOU BE THE JUDGE)

Are all writers like this? I get preoccupied for short, intense bursts on very specific things and then I work my obsessions out by grappling with them in short stories. When I first started writing, it was around the time that everyone I knew was either pregnant or had very new babies. The anecdotes my friends told me about pregnancy, infertility, and new motherhood were absolutely riveting and of course I shamelessly took a lot of what they shared and funnelled it straight into my work. Butter Tea at Starbucks, Miloslav, Quickening, and Gliding, Weightless (along with a couple more that will never see the light of day) were drafted in these years.

And then I got obsessed with long dead artsy bohemians (the pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury Group). A Drawer Full of Guggums was written during this period along with two other stories that I am personally really proud of but no one wants to publish. (Hello! Will someone please say yes to these stories?)

Riddle Fence is where art and literature meet

Right after that, I went through a crucial rite of passage and became obsessed with theoretical physics and wouldn't shut up about black holes and string theory and wave-particle duality. I harangued all Tom's colleagues at dinner parties and forced them to tell me about their research. And then I wrote a bunch of linked stories until I got the physics bug out of my system. When the End Came is the first of the set to make it to print. Hooray! Hopefully this means I can get the other three out there too.

Riddle Fence 29 is beautiful as always. Stand outs for me in this issue are the cover art, Karen Stentaford's three prints, and David Ferry's short story April's Fool. If you're not in St. John's, don't have a subscription, and can't find a copy at your local indie book shop, you can buy a back issues online. Issue 29 should be available to purchase there soon.

Tamil Culture

One of the great unexpected joys of publishing The Boat People is feeling the love from the Sri Lankan community. There are kind posts on Instagram and I hear from readers directly. But I also get hints from time to time that the wonderful support the book's been receiving (particularly in the Toronto media) is a result of Tamil-Canadians giving it a boost behind the scenes. I'm talking about you, Tamil producers. I see you and I thank you.

And of course there are Sri Lankan and Tamil specific outlets too, because the diaspora is at its largest right here in Canada. A couple of months ago, Ara, one of the co-founders of Tamil Culture reached out to me. I'd never heard of Tamil Culture before but here is how I attempt to describe it: it's an online platform, The Huffington Post meets Shaadi meets LinkedIn meets Facebook, a one-stop shop for the younger generation of Tamils all around the world. I'm probably not doing it justice. Go check it out for yourself. And while you're there, here's a fun interview I did with writer Shanelle Kandiah. We talked about how I became a novelist, the inspiration and research behind The Boat People, and of course... what my parents make of all this!

Can't Lit

Back in February, during my trip to Vancouver, I had a chance to finally meet two of my heroes: Jen Sookfong Lee and Dina Del Bucchia. Among other professional duties (writing fiction and poetry, teaching, penning think pieces for Open Book and the Globe and Mail, shouting down ignoramuses on Twitter), Dina and Jen also co-host the Can't Lit podcast.

 With my Can't Lit heroes Dina (L) and Jen (R) (via @ jenleefur )

With my Can't Lit heroes Dina (L) and Jen (R) (via @jenleefur)

Can't Lit, the self-described podcast about "books and stuff," features guest authors and wide-ranging conversations about pop culture, literature, lipstick, and current events. Also, there's time set aside for griping which I, as a person with MANY gripes, appreciate. I don't know this for sure, because I haven't got access to their audience numbers, but I have a suspicion that Can't Lit is the podcast equivalent of the indie band that only a select (very discerning) group listens to. Soon they will blow up and then I'll be one of those smug a-holes who says things like "I listened to them before they got big."

The three of us had a short but sweet chat in February about The Boat People, personal brands, and the perils of the Adults Only Pool. Also, this was the day I decided to call other writers dorks, not just once but multiple times. Sorry Other Writers. Please don't sue me.

Amazon!

Today I fly to Toronto for the the Amazon First Novel Award ceremony. The other night Tom (Dr. Math) said: "I think you have a good shot at winning." To which I relied: "Not really. There are five other books." And he said: "Yes, 1 in 6. Those aren't bad odds." WHAT?

The award is given out tomorrow, Tuesday, May 22 at the Toronto Reference Library (6:30pm). All six of us finalists will do short readings on stage and have a small Q&A session with host Shelagh Rogers. I really hope they allow us to go off stage when they announce the winner. Because it's agonizing enough waiting for that envelope get opened, I can't imagine having to go through that while facing an audience!

Win or lose, the best part of these award ceremonies is always getting to know the other finalists.  Becky Toyne wrote a piece about us in the Globe and Mail and I was really interested to see that we are all 35+. People! It is never, ever too late to write your first novel. Last week I went to the launch of a beautiful debut called Catching the Light. The author, Susan Sinnott, is in her 70s. We're in a writing group together so I've been reading Susan's work and watching her at it for the past few years. Her commitment to doing the work, to undoing and re-doing and writing and re-writing, it is truly inspiring. That perseverance is, as I've said before, the fundamental non-negotiable of being a writer. You can have it in your 20s. You can have it in your 70s.

 

Audience matters

The M&S family at The FOLD! 

A couple of weeks ago I had the absolute pleasure of taking part in the Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD). It's difficult to believe The FOLD is only in its third year. It is hands down the very best literary festival I have ever attended. I am talking NEXT LEVEL FAN-FUCKING-TASTIC. The authors were top shelf. The moderators were incredible. The conversations were smart and hilarious and memorable. The programming was creative and playful. One panel was focused on dystopian stories. Another on anthologies. The show stopper for me was the non-fiction panel featuring Tanya Talaga and Robyn Maynard. When Tanya Talaga said "Rights before reconciliation. Basic rights. Then we can talk about hugs" the packed house was ready to yell AMEN.

I was in awe of the whole festival but it was the audiences that really caught my attention. Because here's the thing: at readings and festivals I consistently see the same faces in the crowd. They are...well, homogenous. Upper middle class, older, white. I appreciate those audiences and those book lovers. They are engaged and careful readers who ask thoughtful questions. But I suspect they represent only a fraction of our readers. Because I see lots of other faces at book shops, reading in airports, on bookstagram. I have banned myself from GoodReads but I suspect the median age over there is quite a bit younger than 60. So as a writer at the start of my career, I look at audiences and I can't help but wonder: is this model sustainable?

The FOLD has cracked the code. The place was on wheels! Standing room only for a couple of events and full of lots of different faces. Older folks. Younger people. Transpeople. Black people. White people. Brown people. Guess what? This is who loves books. All. Of. The. People. High five to The Fold for attracting new audiences, for building something that is new and fresh, and accessible in every possible way. This festival is only in its third year and it has a bright future ahead.

Photo of the After Canada Reads panel from The Fold's Instagram (@the_fold)

Along with Cherie and Omar and moderator Ali, I was part of the After Canada Reads panel that closed out the festival. (You can listen to it here) After two days of being in the audience at other events, I have to admit that I was feeling a little intimidated. The conversations on stage at The Fold set the bar sky high and I've always been pants at the high jump. Fortunately, Cherie and Omar are pros and I let them do all the heavy lifting. The hour went by in a flash and I remember none of it.

CanLit folks: if you are in the GTA you must get yourself to Brampton next year for The FOLD. Authors: speak to your publicists, send flowers to the festival organizers, light candles at mass, sacrifice some doves, do what you need to do to finagle an invite. You won't be sorry.

Quickening

The only thing better than short stories are linked short stories. I love to read them. And I love to write them. Back in 2012 I wrote a story about a character called Hen who goes on holiday to France with her sister Daphne. The story is called "Gliding, Weightless"  and was published in Riddle Fence, issue 21. And then I wrote another story set a couple of years earlier and told from the point of view of Hen's husband Neil. It's called "Quickening" and today it was published by Understorey Magazine's latest issue. You can read the story here.